David Cameron: UK's Next Leader?

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Amelia Troubridge for TIME

KING OF THE CASTLE: From the balcony of his office next to the Palace of Westminster, Cameron surveys the streets below

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There's a photograph of Cameron with Boris Johnson, London's patrician mayor, and other Bullingdon members in their toffy getup, taken a year before the Cliveden trip and widely reprinted in the British press last year. It has been withdrawn from circulation. Old friends stick together, and none more so than Britons bonded through the shared experiences of class and education. One sign of the narrowness of Cameron's natural world: his wife Samantha, although the daughter of a baronet, is widely credited with being her husband's conduit to a more plural society. She's the creative director of stationer and luxury-goods firm Smythson's and, says one of Cameron's close colleagues, "She's very down to earth. She's mildly bohemian. She's quite liberal. She has an eclectic bunch of friends, the sorts of people David wouldn't have met without her, and she humanizes him."

Cameron doesn't deny his past, but he's keen not to dwell on it either, even though the politics of envy — once a potent weapon for Labour — has lost traction. That was the cheering message Tories could take from their May by-election victory in Crewe and Nantwich, a constituency in northwest England. Edward Timpson, heir to a shoe-repair chain, won easily there, despite a negative campaign that burlesqued him as a "Tory toff." Likewise, concludes Iain Dale, a Conservative blogger and the publisher of Total Politics magazine, Cameron's background is no longer an electoral liability: "A lot of people like the fact that Cameron is quite posh. They think he's the right sort of person to govern."

But that doesn't mean that class is no longer an issue. Cameron's signature policies, the defining core of Cameronism — if, despite his protests, such a thing exists — are geared to improving social mobility and fixing what he calls "broken Britain." Like all Conservatives, he wants a smaller state and a disciplined approach to public finances. He also preaches a bigger role for the community and the importance of fostering a greater sense of social responsibility. His focus, he says, is on "welfare, schools and families. If you want to mend the broken society, these are the things you have to try to get right."

There's much debate about how broken Britain really is, but Cameron taps into widespread concern about deepening poverty, overstretched public services and a rise in violence, especially among teenagers. Champagne memories and social deprivation could make for an uneasy juxtaposition, especially in such tough times. Can someone marinated in plenty viscerally understand what it feels like to be poor or excluded? He brushes the question aside with visible irritation. "I don't have this deterministic view of life that you can only care about something if you directly experience it," he says. "You can't walk a mile in everybody's shoes."

Fair point: but that won't stop his opponents from questioning his powers of empathy. Cameron has endured precious few upsets. One came in 1997, when he failed in his first bid for Parliament. Still, his old job — as head of corporate affairs at media group Carlton Communications — awaited, and he was soon selected as Conservative candidate for Witney, near Oxford, where he has served since 2001.

If one event challenged Cameron, nudged him toward a more compassionate Conservatism, it was the birth in 2002 of his first son, Ivan, who is severely disabled, and the brutal introduction this gave the family to state health care and social services. Ivan suffers from cerebral palsy and epilepsy and needs 24-hour care. "David and Samantha love Ivan very much," says the close colleague. "There will be days when David comes in to work when he's been up all night in hospital because Ivan has had a fit."

Depending on the kindness of strangers as they tend to his son has changed Cameron. "It has a big influence on you if you have a disabled child and you spend a lot of time in hospitals with social workers and respite-care workers," he says. "It shakes you a bit when it first happens. You learn to cope with it. It brings you into touch with a lot of people you meet in politics, but you meet them in a different way."

This realignment of priorities extends beyond politics. Andrew Feldman, a university friend of Cameron's and now chief executive of the party, recalls that "last year, when the polls were against David, I commiserated with him. But David was completely upbeat. Ivan had lost the ability to smile, and now they'd changed the medication, and he'd got his smile back. That was what mattered."

Nasty to Nice
The Tories are the traditional party of privilege, Labour the champions of the working class. But Margaret Thatcher, a radical Conservative, kicked against the establishment that tried to block her ascent; her policies appealed to aspirational working-class voters. Her successor, John Major, who came from a very modest background, nicely epitomized Thatcher's success. Blair, educated like Cameron at a private school and Oxford, won three terms as the leader of New Labour, a party as geared to middle-class interests as to workers' rights.

Meritocracy (and a touch of cronyism) was a key legacy of Thatcher, Major and Blair. But even before the three of them came to power, the high-born sons who once dominated British politics had lost their sway. Alec Douglas-Home left office in 1964, the last of 18 Old Etonian Prime Ministers. In recent decades, leaders were expected to show an affinity for voters, to be men — or, in Thatcher's case, a woman — of the people.

As he takes questions in Loughborough or chats to trainees learning to strip down truck engines at an apprenticeship scheme in the neighboring constituency, that's exactly how Cameron comes across. It's cleverly pitched. He doesn't conceal his heritage (or flatten his upper-class accent); he finesses it. His interlocutors don't feel patronized — they sense that he understands them and cares about what they care about.

Compassion and empathy were the last qualities associated with the Conservative Party when Cameron launched his leadership campaign. Labour had been able to capitalize on the benefits of harsh economic reforms pushed through by Thatcher while continuing to blame their human cost on her. In opposition, the Tories floundered, running through three successive leaders who all tried and failed to woo voters with populist, right-wing rhetoric.

It's a pillar of British political science that governments lose elections; oppositions don't win them. Cameron wants to topple it. "When a government is in trouble, an opposition party's main task is not to be unelectable. What David Cameron has achieved — and it's a massive achievement — is to make the Tories electable," says Peter Kellner, president of polling organization YouGov. "One of the things Cameron has understood better than his predecessors is that when people form judgments about politicians and parties, it's on the whole not a judgment about their policies; it's a judgment about what sort of people and what sort of party they are." And the pre-Cameron Tories, in the words of their then chairwoman, Theresa May, were seen as "the nasty party."

Too nice a person could never have transformed the nasty party. It required some iron in the soul for Cameron to face down traditionalists who accused him of betraying Conservative values. That metal is well concealed. Peter Sinclair, his Oxford economics professor, says, "We've had rather few Prime Ministers who've been as intellectually able as David," but recalls that his student (who, he says, won "a sparkling first") was "keen not to show up other people." A similar tribute comes from Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford: "He was one of the nicest and ablest pupils I ever taught."

But here's a different take, from his close colleague: "He's ambitious, competitive, there's an element of selfishness, all the things which are important if you're going to be Prime Minister. Ruthless. He's got all of those." He adds: "David is a natural No. 1. I would pity the person who had taken the Tory leadership and had to cope with David as their deputy."

Much of Cameron's strength derives from self-belief: not the fragile veneer of assurance acquired or affected by most politicians but a deep-down certainty that protects him from dark nights of the soul. "There's no massive thing I've done [where] I lie awake thinking I wish I'd never done that," he says. From a stable, loving family, sent to a school that instills a sense of entitlement in even its dullest pupils, Cameron seems never to have doubted that he was destined for great things. "He came to Oxford equipped with a much more complete road map of what he wanted to do," says Guy Spier, who also attended Sinclair's tutorials and now runs an investment firm in New York. He remembers Cameron as an outstanding student: "We were doing our best to grasp basic economic concepts. David — there was nobody else who came even close. He would be integrating them with the way the British political system is put together. He could have lectured me on it, and I would have sat there and taken notes and learned how British politics was put together."

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